Film Review: I am Not Your Negro
“You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – James Baldwin
“I am Not Your Negro” is a documentary by Raoul Peck exploring American race politics with the help of James Baldwin’s unfinished notes: “Remember this house (1979)”. James Baldwin attempts to recount Black people’s trauma in America by sharing his feelings about, and relationship with, three of many of America’s renown freedom fighters namely: Malik Shabazz (also Malcolm X), Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. The film does an incredible job at showing that times have merely changed by little to nothing using mirror images of Black people in America 400 years ago, then the 60s, and then today’s images of protests on police brutality.
Additionally, we learn that Baldwin moved to France in the 70s. I personally found it an odd nation to seek refuge in as a Black person—or as Baldwin shares—as a place where one is not merely a negro. France was and continues to be a harsh colonizer, one that continues to refuse the atrocities it committed against Black people in Afrika and worldwide. And this may only be criticism by a 21st century Afrikan like myself knowing that many Afrikan freedom fighters moved to the colonizers’ homes to seek education. Franz Fanon is a good example. Back to Baldwin; in France he was able to reflect on the story of the American negro and grow to become the spectacular author we praise today.
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Before I go into details about the documentary, I will admit, I am not a fan of non-violence. I live off the words of young revolutionary Kwame Touré:
“In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience”
And to this day, not Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King have convinced me where the consciousness is when we, Black people, have to repeatedly prove our humanity.
In telling his stories, James Baldwin indicates that though many Black people view Malik Shabazz and Martin Luther King as two opposing pillars in the freedom fight, their paths merge towards the end of their life. One thing that was highlighted throughout the documentary was how many times Black activists began their fight at a young age, from Shabazz to Huey to Kathleen and Davis—revolutions have been in the hands of young people not only in America but also on the continent of Afrika. Baldwin indicates that young Black people always took onto their shoulders rods that young people should never have to. I think this illustrates one of the many ways Black people did not have the luxury of a simple childhood. More specifically, King, Shabazz, and Evers sacrificed their lives for not only the young American today but also the 90-year-old American in their times.
Baldwin says, “I was not a Black Muslim, in the same way, though for different reasons, that I never became a Black Panther, because I did not believe that all white people were devils, and I did not want young Black people to believe that”
I first came into contact with these words three years ago in a class I took. And as much as I love James Baldwin, this statement never could stay red on my tongue. Black people do not really have that luxury to make personal choices but the reality within which they live—the American society—runs on individualism. But we forget that the negro never afforded these privileges. Baldwin goes on to say:
“I was not a member of any Christian congregation because I knew that they had not heard and did not live by the commandment ‘love one another as I love you.’ And I was not a member of the NAACP because in the North, where I grew up, the NAACP was fatally entangled with black class distinctions, or illusions of the same…”
Interestingly enough, Baldwin was able to institutionally pick apart the idea of Christianity being unfit for a Black person which he failed to do with the Panther and the Muslim. However, more importantly is his statement about the NAACP, which in many ways was the biggest fan of King. The NAACP has been criticized by many activists about its engagement in socio-economic monopoly or to put it plainly, in elitism. In the autobiography of Rosa Parks, we learn of the abandonment of various activists by NAACP because it did not uphold the distorted reality that they were interested in creating. Elitism continues today to be a struggle for Black people across the globe—most of which is metaphorically wrapped in respectability politics.
Though Baldwin tries his best to portray himself as a neutral Black person in the chess game of Shabazz or King, he in some ways unveils his side. This is the battle that has been going on for years, to be non-violent like King or “By any Means Necessary” like Shabazz. Shabazz explains that the moral responsibility that has been placed on the negro when faced with violence is to turn the other cheek. We expect Black people to prove their humanity to other Black people and white people by responding to the violence inflicted on them with “love and kindness”. Shabazz explains that caressing the brute that brutalizes the negro does not guarantee protection or change. In the documentary, an excerpt from King’s interview is shared in which he explains why non-violence is the way to go. He says that “people committed to non-violence protest understand the core which is a willingness to be the recipient of violence while never inflicting violence upon another”. Something that personally doesn’t sit well with me. Whether Black folks are carrying guns or not, violence perpetuated against them is normalized by the white man.
One thing I do agree with Baldwin though is Shabazz’s excellent ability to narrate the story of the negro. “Malcolm affirmed the existence of Black people. He corroborates their reality and articulates their suffering (fully)”, Baldwin shares. It is however, interesting to see the way in which Black people reacted to Shabazz’s death. It is as though many expected Shabazz to pass so young, attributing this to his belief in defending himself. But the death of King shocked everyone because Black people (and we have to admit this) had been engaged in the alternative reality idea that non-violence would buy King his life. This is the same strategy elitists use to control Black youths with respectability politics. Telling them that if they dress a certain way (like the wall street white man), speak properly (like the Queen of England), and other things, then they will be able to buy power, which affords them life. But this is a lie. It is not for the Black youths to change their ways but for the system for uproot itself and recognize its faults.
This brings me to the last theme that runs throughout the documentary, which is the fact that America is in denial. Baldwin says, “America is trapped in between what we want to be and what we are”. During Shabazz’s interview, he illustrates the process it takes for America to say it has made progress with a metaphor about sticking a knife in one’s back. “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there”.
As if echoing Shabazz, James Baldwin says that until America allows itself to face the reality that Black History is American History—that violence against Black folks is normalized as they are seen as subhuman and ultimately institutions continue to systemically disenfranchise Black folks—the lives of Black people in America will continue to be mirrors of each other on a timeline dating back 400 years. The great thing about the documentary is that is demonstrates how Baldwin does what many activists fail to do. He reminds Black people that it is not their responsibility to fix America. It is not their responsibility to find solutions because they did not create the society that brutalizes them. Baldwin says that the white person has to ask themselves “why it was necessary for them to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I’m a man. If I’m not the nigger here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why”. This is the first step to a better America.
- Director: Raoul Peck
- Writer: James Baldwin
- Runtime: 1h 33min
- Genre: Documentary